Who Are We To Forgive?

Rev. Victoria Weinstein

First Parish in Norwell
April 13, 2003


Pastor Martin Niemoeller, a highly decorated commander in World War I, held one of the most prestigious pulpits in Germany, Berling-Dahlem. He became the most prominent leader of the anti-Nazi Confessing Church in Germany, and in 1934 he took the lead in forming the Pastor' s Emergency League. When the church struggle intensified he was arrested for " attacking the state." The court set him free but the Fuhrer overruled the court and sent him to concentration camp as a " personal prisoner." From July 1937 until the end of the war he was held in prison and concentration camp, including over three years in solitary confinement (at Sachsenhausen and Dachau).

Rev. Niemoeller survived the war and helped prepare the " Stuttgart Confession of Guilt," (October 1945), through which the German churches confessed their failure as Christians to fight against Nazism. He was for a time one of the presidents of thee World Council of Churches. According to his widow, Sybil Niemoeller, these are his exact words (from p 189, Liturgies on the Holocaust, ed. Marcia Sachs Littell and Sharon Weissman Gutman):
First they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the Socialists
and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me –
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.

Let us pray:
On this Palm Sunday, we are beholden to remember the innocent who fall prey to those deranged with power. We will not ignore the witness of those who endure persecution, and we will not fail to protest vehemently against tyrannies. God, save us from comfortable inaction and the mistaken notion that our small efforts are not important. May we heed the call to help alleviate suffering in any way we can, and to be grateful to those whose call for mercy and help keeps us up nights, and preys on our conscience, and bids us devote ourselves more deeply to compassionate and generous lives.

May we be gathered into the strength of shared silence. Amen.

READING from The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness Simon Wiesenthal

Simon Wiesenthal was interned at a concentration camp and put on work detail at a school that had been turned into a military hospital. One day during his work detail, Wiesenthal was whisked away from the rest of his group and brought to the bedside of a dying German SS officer.

Here are some excerpts from this disturbing encounter, which took place in the semi-darkness, as Wiesenthal sat beside the dying young Nazi, whose face was almost completely bandaged.
" I have not much longer to live," whispered the sick man in a barely audible voice. " I know the end is near."

I was unmoved by his words. The way I had been forced to exist in the prison camps had destroyed in me any feeling or fear about death.

" I know," muttered the sick man, " that at this moment thousands of men are dying. Death is everywhere. It is neither infrequent nor extraordinary. I am resigned to dying soon, but before that I want to talk about an experience which is torturing me. Otherwise I cannot die in peace." He was breathing heavily. I had the feeling that he was staring at me through his head bandage. I could not look at him.

" My name is Karl… I joined the SS as a volunteer. Of course – when you hear the word SS … I must tell you something dreadful… something inhuman. It happened a year ago… has a year already gone by?" These last words he spoke almost to himself. Then his hand grasped mine. His fingers clutched mine tightly, as though he sensed I was trying unconsciously to withdraw my hand when I heard the word ‘crime.'

" I must tell you of this horrible deed – tell you because… you are a Jew?"

Could there by some kind of horror unknown to us?

" I was not born a murderer . . . " he wheezed. " I come from Stuttgart and I am now twenty-one. That is too soon to die. I have had very little out of life."

Of course it was too soon to die, I thought. But did the Nazis ask whether our children whom they were about to gas had ever had anything out of life? Did they ask whether it was too soon for them to die? Certainly nobody had ever asked me that question.

Karl then relates the story of the crime that haunts him, and for which he seeks forgiveness before his death. It is an episode too lurid to repeat here, involving tremendous cruelty and suffering, and it is sufficient to say that it made Karl directly, singularly responsible for the deaths of many men, women and children at one time. Wiesenthal struggled to stay with the man so desperate for confession. He writes at one point:

" All my instincts were against continuing to listen to this deathbed disavowal. I wanted to get away. The dying man must have felt this, for he groped for my arm. The movement was so pathetically helpless that all of a sudden I felt sorry for him. I would stay, although I wanted to go."

We should note that Wiesenthal did not leave. He remained in the dark room for the entire recounting of the horrific tale, and he held silence. In one moment he allowed this man to grope for his hand. At another moment he brushed an errant fly from his head.

And now I continue with the Karl' s confession:

" Believe me, I would be ready to suffer worse and longer pains if by that means I could bring back the dead. In the last hours of my life you are with me. I do not know who you are, I only know that you are a Jew, and that is enough.

I said nothing.

" I want to die in peace and so I need…"

I saw that he could not get the words past his lips. But I was in no mood to help him. I kept silent.

" I know that what I have told you is terrible. In the long nights while I have been waiting for death, time and time again I have longed to talk to a Jew and beg forgiveness from him. Only I didn' t know whether there were any Jews left… I know that what I am asking is almost too much for you, but without your answer I cannot die in peace."

Simon Wiesenthal notes the uncanny silence in the room. He notes the contrast between the sun shining outside and the sense of doom in the chamber. He at last makes up his mind and leaves the room without a word.

Later, after having survived his ordeal in the camps barely intact, he visits Karl' s mother. The young man had left Wiesenthal all his few remaining possessions, which Wiesenthal refuses. In a final act of compassionate silence, Wiesenthal does not reveal to the Nazi' s mother the tie that binds them together, and allows her to live in the denial that she expresses when she tells her visitor: " One thing is certain. Karl never did any wrong. He was always a decent young man."

As he concludes his story, Wiesenthal writes, " You, who have just read this sad and tragic episode in my life, can mentally change places with me and ask yourself the crucial question, ‘What would I have done?' "

THE SERMON " Who Are We To Forgive?"

The moral question has been set before us. We are asked to do the impossible, to put ourselves into the shoes of Simon Wiesenthal, to somehow imagine that we are face to face with a brutal tormenter, a Nazi officer who has made it his professional business to strip us and our brothers and sisters of their humanity, to subject them to unspeakably sadistic acts and to finally exterminate them. We are asked if what we would have done, if we would forgive this repentant criminal.

Let us begin by acknowledging the limits of imagination. When I say it is impossible to put ourselves in Wiesenthal' s position, I do not mean it as an empty figure of speech or to make a dramatic point. I mean it quite literally. We can never put ourselves in Simon Wiesenthal' s shoes. I would go so far as to say that to try to do so is even unethical. Although I appreciate Wiesenthal' s invitation to " mentally change places" with him, I think it is dangerous to assume that I can.

It seems important to say this at the outset, living as we do in an age of vicarious experience. We watch a war on CNN so we think we can imagine what it' s like to be there. We cannot. We have seen photos of the Holocaust or been to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, so we think we have a little bit of a sense of the immensity of the horror. We do not. We cannot, unless we lived through it. Some of us, myself included, had family and loved ones among the victims of Hitler' s savage ideology. We think we can muster a sense of connection to their experience. We cannot, although to keep trying to do so is only human. However, Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Prize recipient and living witness of the death camps, warns:

" Auschwitz cannot be depicted; the veil covering this dark universe cannot be lifted." I take seriously from Mr. Wiesel his caution that " only those who were there know what it was; the others will never know. It was easier for Auschwitz inmates to imagine themselves free than for free persons to imagine themselves in Auschwitz. The Holocaust must be remembered. But not as a show." (And the Sea is Never Full, p. 122). Therefore, anything we have seen, read or heard about the Shoah, does not give us permission to say we approach understanding.

" And yet." Simon Wiesenthal has recorded this morality tale not just to report it to us but to ask us to participate in it. And because he asks me for a response, I will respect his request and hope you will too by seriously reflecting on your own reaction to this encounter between the victim and the oppressor.

My response to this situation is greatly influenced by my reading of the responses of fifty-three distinguished men and women whose theological reflections collected in The Sunflower I have carefully read and considered. I have five major points to make in my response, with the caveat that I shall never be " done" reflecting on this issue of forgiveness.

1. First and perhaps foremost, I agree with Christians, Buddhists and Jews (the three religious perspectives represented by The Sunflower' s respondents) that the religious principle of forgiveness is a sound one not only for spiritual well-being, but also for psychological health. So my initial response takes a somewhat pragmatic tone by suggesting that forgiveness is generally a good idea because it releases the person who has been wronged from a bond of hatred or enmity with the offender. When I counsel forgiveness it is not the offender or perpetrator I am thinking of. It is the freedom experienced by the one who forgives that I hope to encourage; the one who by forgiving, dismantles the powerful hold the perpetrator has on his or her spirit. Forgiveness is closely tied to the fullness of spiritual freedom. The spirit cannot flourish without it. The world cannot survive without it.

2. That said, I cannot accept the notion that one can grant forgiveness on another' s behalf. Jewish tradition holds that forgiveness requires both atonement and restitution. Therefore, " people can never forgive murder, since the one person who can forgive is gone forever. Under conditions of " awesome contrition," God presumably can forgive a murderer, but as far as people are concerned, it is unforgivable." (Dennis Prager)

Along with Andre Stein, I find myself sadly agreeing that " The consequences of participating in genocidal acts must include dying with a guilty conscience."

3. The SS officer evokes no pity from me, nor does he evoke my mercy. I do not doubt that he is afraid. I am able to observe his fear from a humane perspective without feeling accountable for it. We say in our first principle that " we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all people." And I do believe that, and find it tragic indeed when any human being chooses to relinquish their inherent dignity, which is what this man chose to do with his free will. Many did it at the time, and with no excuse at all. In the case of this particular officer, he had been raised in a good home with a strong Catholic upbringing. Neither of his parents were Nazi sympathizers; in fact, his father was hostile to Hitler' s uprising.

History has taught us that when Europeans stood up to the Nazis and refused to comply with orders to hand over their Jewish populations, their efforts were successful. Denmark, for example, had a policy of protecting Jews. As a nation they saved thousands of lives. On a far smaller scale, there is ample evidence that German soldiers and officers who refused to comply with brutal orders were not punished. The Nazis weren' t superhuman monsters. They were ordinary men and women who capitulated to base and savage instincts and gave themselves entirely over to their shadow sides. Again, I find no pity in my heart for them, just a sense of the tragic for what they became and what they inflicted on others. I am not drawn into the dying Nazi' s drama, which is filled with egocentric remarks like " I am too young to die" and " I want to die in peace." As Joseph Telushkin pointedly asks, " what had he done to entitle himself to so distinct a privilege?"

It is a terrible thing to face our Eternity with a guilty conscience. This is why our religious lives must be addressed not only to our lives but to our moment of death, so that we have not accumulated by that time a laundry list of emotional or actual crimes against other living creatures that we find it is ultimately too late to make amends for. Obviously, for the SS officer it was far too late. He piteously complained that he had not been born a murderer and didn' t want to die a murderer. Our religion responds that no one is born a murderer, and if one doesn' t want to " die a murderer" one does not commit murder. It' s not complicated. Unless life provides many long years to do acts of reparation and save as many lives as one has destroyed, there is no opportunity for redemption. No one has died for our sins as Unitarians. This is an article of orthodox Christian faith we dispensed with long ago. We are ourselves responsible for our actions. In this foundational belief resides our dignity.

The SS officer had consciously devoted his life to the service of evil and now he had to face the consequences in this life and the hereafter. I think it was compassionate for Wiesenthal to remain present for his tormenter' s confession. Sometimes all we can ethically do is bear witness to the deep regret and terror that comes upon a fellow human being' s soul as they confront their own moral failings. It is not for me to try to assuage that pain by dispensing what theologian Paul Tillich called " cheap grace."

4. It is morally offensive to believe that one member of a group can represent the entire collective.

Let' s look again at the Nazi officer' s revealing comment to Simon Wiesenthal: " I do not know who you are, I only know that you are a Jew, and that is enough." We learn that Karl has told the nurse to randomly fetch " a Jew." Any Jew will do. Here again we have evidence that despite his obviously sincere remorse, Karl hasn' t learned much. Clearly he is still in the throes of his Nazi mentality, which dehumanized an entire people by virtue of denying them individuality or identity. Simon Wiesenthal is not a human being to the Nazi, but a symbol, an anonymous instrument of salvation. Karl does not consider the fact that the man before him has himself been living with the threat of death every moment of every day for years. It is, as we say, " all about him." He is Karl, an individual facing his last moment, a momentous occasion for which he expects special consideration. The Jew, the anonymous Jew, who is wholly innocent of any wrongdoing, has faced his own death without any such consideration from Karl' s cohorts in power. " The Jew" -- men, women and children reduced to numbers, have faced death six million times, death without appropriate ceremony or solace. This Nazi, striving desperately to die with at least a modicum of spiritual comfort, has not even learned to acknowledge the humanity of the man he has called to his bedside for final absolution. The insult is inexcusable.

5. This is a story about the power of silence.

Some will find it unloving for Wiesenthal to leave the room and deny the dying man his last request. I do not. I find it appropriate. Wiesenthal could have taken advantage of the situation. He could have further tormented the man, cursed him, excoriated him for his crimes and his culpability for the immense horrors unleashed by his comrades. He could have celebrated his death, or smothered him. But he did none of those things. He remained present to the suffering of the man. He touched his hand, he swatted away a bothersome fly. He behaved with decency.

So I am asked: What would I have done?
What is my response to this man, this Karl?

As a minister, I advise Karl to call for a priest if he wants final absolution, because a priest has been given the authority by a faith community to provide it, while obviously the Jewish prisoner has not. A starving, traumatized Jewish prisoner was not the appropriate person upon whom to inflict this request, to impose further burden upon. As a Catholic, Karl should have known better.

He also should have known better than to expect that any Jewish man had any reason to trust the sincerity of any Nazi, no matter how sick or how close to death, or how apparently afflicted by conscience.

Finally, I am able to say this to you, the congregation, without any claim that I would have been able to say it to the dying Nazi:

Genuine remorse and repentance for the sadistic treatment and murder of innocent people is the only means by which savages can begin to reclaim their own humanity. I like to think that in a similar situation, I would have been able to acknowledge to this man that since he demonstrated sincere remorse before his death, he was able to take a small step toward reclaiming his humanity. " Karl, by your confession of guilt and your sincere remorse, I acknowledge that you have taken a step back toward reclaiming your humanity." That is all the comfort I feel it would be responsible to grant.

What I am trying to do, I suppose, is find the religiously uncharted territory between granting forgiveness and holding onto hostility. Is there such a neutral ground, and can we live there?

It is important that in doing our best to assiduously avoid hating even those who persecute us, we not go to the other extreme and seek to bring comfort to those who violate the human covenant so egregiously, and with such extraordinarily horrific, irreparable consequences.

Rabbi Jesus and His Holiness the Dalai Lama are both enlightened, god-filled men, who as a spiritual law counsel unconditional forgiveness. Both of these teachers of the Way have survived trials and sufferings too great for many of us to bear. But neither of them saw Auschwitz, Terezin, Dachau or Treblinka. To stand in solidarity with those who did, and especially those who were consigned to the flames there and in other hellfires like them, I feel called to maintain, as did Simon Wiesenthal, a holy silence.

Who are we to forgive? Who are we to forgive?

Sometimes, to live in the hard questions is the only adequate response.

" We are created in order to love one another, and when the law of love is broken, God' s nature is frustrated." (Christopher Hollis) The very least we can do, my friends, and the very most, is to live so as not to frustrate God' s nature in such a manner.
Lord have mercy.

BENEDICTION the words of Elie Wiesel

" And yet. One must wager on the future. To save the life of a single child, no effort is superfluous. To make a tired old man smile is to perform an essential task. To defeat injustice and misfortune, if only for one instant, for a single victim, is to invent a new reason to hope."